By Chris Paludi
American elections are, personally and politically, often unpleasant. They can feel like trench warfare as earlier and earlier every cycle, both sides gear up for a battle of attrition. But, I think – hope – there is another way for us to think about our politics, and elections provide the opportunity for reflection. They’re like a political New Year’s Eve; we have a chance to behave differently this time around. In 2020, we can do better for our country and for ourselves.The core of this article is a simple pair of ideas: that we should remember that our political opponents are, ultimately, partners in a shared enterprise; and that, in our private lives, the truest self-care is to think and talk often about what constitutes real happiness.
Let’s first review the political side. Today, stability is threatened, in no small part because Americans regard their fellows as their enemy. Too often we often forget that in historical and global contexts, even the most antipathetic Congressmen are essentially two sides of a coin; both mainstream progressivism and conservatism are recognizably American. On the political spectrum, our seemingly opposite parties are actually much closer to each other than to either communism in China or theocracy in Iran. Like America, both those regimes are of principles; but unlike America, both of those regimes are utopian and are therefore oppressive.
America is instead characterized by moderated optimism. In what we have considered politically possible, we inherit from our Founders, in the words of historian Martin Diamond, a “revolution of sober expectations.” Yet as Lincoln reminded us, what we in fact inherit is an experiment, a country dedicated to a “proposition that all men are created equal” (italics mine). While America may be strong and feel secure, when seen historically America looks very fragile indeed. We are exceptional but not invulnerable. Because democracy is never given by but must instead be upheld against nature, this American experiment cannot be taken for granted.
The Enlightenment aimed for safety and comfort. For modern thinkers, as far as is realizable by human artifice, justice is social stability. In this sense, justice is the precondition of other goods; what these are, is for the individual to decide for herself. Although we have a deep longing for good and beautiful things, not all are humanly realizable. The Founders wrote in the Constitution, in their moderate optimism, that government exists to “establish Justice” by guaranteeing both freedom from coercion and social stability for its citizens. We humans, especially we young, want a much grander justice than this lower but more practicable stability. But ours is a generation which must guard that low justice.
For the sake of both liberty and stability, we must always keep in mind that our system rests on a theoretical proposition. Fundamentally, our free society depends on the practical necessity that Americans who disagree treat each other decently. For people to act according to principles rather than passions, we have to approach politics like familial relations. In a global and historical sense — relative to many countries around us and to almost all the examples of human history — Americans of all stripes are political family. And in a family, you can persuade, compromise, or agree to disagree; but you may not coerce or dominate, because at the end of the day, we still have to live with each other.
Especially in election cycles, I think it helps to keep this in mind: election arguments can feel more intense than those between strangers, but ours are family squabbles.
I draw two consequences of this fact, the first public and the second private. We must think of each other as equal stakeholders in a shared and fragile enterprise. The second is a reminder in line with what we popularly describe as self-care.
After a family fight, most of us go back to our rooms to reflect. Although we have a shared home, we also have an individual life. This is also true of politics, where we share responsibility for our communities but are ultimately responsible for ourselves.
We are political beings in that we yearn for goodness, and politics is the most obvious arranging of certain goods; but political action may be badly misguided. To avoid creating ills through good intentions, each of us must reflect on our opinions and be good ourselves. This thoughtful consideration of our own motives and beliefs is the highest form of self-care. Moreover, it’s not an abstract concern: the only way to be happy is to think oneself good.
We have but one earthly life, and as young adults, right now we stand on the cusp of it; we have the freedom to choose where we want to go and who we want to be. This is both a blessing and a curse. How can I be happy if I have no idea what I am? I don’t think that politics, despite the undeniable thrill of contest and spectacle, can answer that question. Politics cannot satisfy our deepest longings. And really, would we want it to? It would be truly horrible if Democrat or Republican were an existential position, the reason for our existence. Even in an election cycle, politics cannot be our highest value.
Maybe we end up with this. When justice, understood as safety and sustenance, is secured for me by the government; when I no longer fear violent death every day, but because I am human I am still aware I must eventually die; when I work at some desk somewhere, and my only daily contact with nature is my computer background — how should I live? Each of us responds to goodness – we are drawn to being and doing good. If we want to do good, first we have to be good or know what goodness is. This takes reflection and humility, and it requires taking some standard of virtue seriously.
It’s hard work, and it requires a distancing from politics that doesn’t seem appropriate in troubled times. Yet in following the 24-hour news cycle, especially during the scandal and horse-race coverage in an election year, there’s a danger of losing sight of what matters. Unlike in politics, which will always be dissatisfying, under our own individual control is our own happiness.